How Christendom Came to Worship an Unknown God
CHRISTENDOM’S mysterious three-in-one God is not the God of the Jews. Their daily Shema, or confession of faith, states: “The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Neither is this triune deity the God of the nearly 600 million Muslims, whose Koran declares: “He, Allāh, is one.”
It is a historical fact that Christianity had Jewish roots. Jesus Christ himself was a Jew. He fulfilled the Law God gave to the Jews and was the Messiah whose coming was foretold by the Jewish prophets. (Matthew 5:17; John 1:45; Acts 3:18) His earliest followers were all Jews or circumcised proselytes. (Matthew 10:5, 6; Acts 2:1-11) And we have seen that the Trinity was not and still is not believed by the Jews.
Can it be said that Christ and the writers of the Christian Scriptures abandoned the monotheistic notion of one God and introduced a mysterious three-in-one Godhead? No, for the Encyclopædia Britannica (1976 edition) correctly states: “Neither the word Trinity, nor the explicit doctrine as such, appears in the New Testament, nor did Jesus and his followers intend to contradict the Shema in the Old Testament: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord’ (Deut. 6:4). . . . The doctrine developed gradually over several centuries and through many controversies.”
Apostasy and Philosophy
The Christian apostle Paul wrote: “The time is sure to come when, far from being content with sound teaching, people will be avid for the latest novelty and collect themselves a whole series of teachers according to their own tastes; and then, instead of listening to the truth, they will turn to myths.”—2 Timothy 4:3, 4, the Catholic Jerusalem Bible.
Evidence within the Bible itself shows that apostasy already was at work before the death of Christ’s apostles. (2 Thessalonians 2:3, 7; 1 John 2:18, 19; Jude 3, 4, 16, 19) Apostates from within the Christian congregation rose up as false teachers. Instead of following Bible truth, these ungodly men turned to “myths.” They carried off many Christians as their prey “through the philosophy and empty deception according to the tradition of men.”—Colossians 2:8.
Commenting on what happened, Oxford University Professor J. N. D. Kelly writes: “During the first three centuries of its existence, the Christian Church had first to emerge from the [monotheistic] Jewish environment that had cradled it and then come to terms with the predominantly Hellenistic (Greek) culture surrounding it.” Then, speaking of early teachers who later became known as church fathers, Professor Kelly continues: “Most of them exploited current philosophical conceptions. . . . They have been accused of Hellenizing Christianity (making it Greek in form and method), but they were in fact attempting to formulate it in intellectual categories congenial [suited] to their age. In a real sense they were the first Christian theologians.” These early “theologians” set about adapting primitive Bible-based Christianity to current philosophical ideas.
Philosophical Origins of the Trinity
Interestingly, the French encyclopedia Alpha states: “Most religious traditions or philosophical systems set forth ternary [threefold] groups or triads that correspond to primeval forces or to aspects of the supreme God.” Another French work points to the Greek philosopher Plato (of about 427 to 347 B.C.E.) and declares:
“The Platonic trinity, itself merely a rearrangement of older trinities dating back to earlier peoples, appears to be the rational philosophic trinity of attributes that gave birth to the three hypostases or divine persons taught by the Christian churches. . . . This Greek philosopher’s conception of the divine trinity . . . can be found in all the ancient [pagan] religions.”—Dictionnaire Lachatre.
Naturally, Christendom’s priests and clergymen, for the most part, deny this pagan philosophical origin of the Trinity dogma. The authoritative French Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique devotes 16 columns of small type to its arguments against the relationship between Plato’s trinity and Christendom’s triune God. Yet, this work has to admit that Catholic “Saint” Augustine himself—said to have been “of decisive importance for the Western [Roman] development of the Trinitarian doctrine”—recognized this relationship. Moreover, the Encyclopædia Britannica (1976, Macropædia) states: “Such a Hellenization did, to a large extent, take place. The definition of the Christian faith as contained in the creeds of the ecumenical synods of the early church indicate that unbiblical categories of Neoplatonic philosophy were used in the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity.”
A Trinitarian “Unknown God”
Speaking to a group of philosophers in Athens, Greece, the apostle Paul declared: “While passing along and carefully observing your objects of veneration I also found an altar on which had been inscribed ‘To an Unknown God.’” (Acts 17:23) Interestingly, the French Pirot and Clamer Bible comments that the Greek philosophers “had not come to a knowledge of God the Creator. Even Plato saw in God merely the organizer of preexistent matter.” Plato’s God was a nameless supreme “idea” that his later disciples called “the One,” or “the Good.” It was such a mysterious, unknowable God tied in with Plato’s divine triad theory that apostate Christian church fathers set out to imitate. In a sense, therefore, Christendom has an “unknown God.”
Since “neither the word Trinity, nor the explicit doctrine as such, appears in the New Testament,” the philosopher-theologians had to fish around in the Scriptures to find a semblance of justification for a triune God. The best they could come up with were a few texts that happen to mention the Father, the Son and the holy spirit in the same context, although not necessarily in that order. (Matthew 28:19; 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; 2 Corinthians 13:14 [13 in many Catholic Bibles]) Such texts were said to contain a “triadic formula.” On this point, the scholarly Theological Dictionary of the New Testament states: “Perhaps recollection of the many triads of the surrounding polytheistic world contributed to the formation of these threefold formulae.” Then, in a footnote, this work says that in the apocryphal Gospel of the Hebrews, the spirit (feminine gender in Hebrew and Aramaic) “is regarded as the mother of Jesus” and adds: “Thus we have the common family triad of antiquity, i.e., father, mother and son.”
Of course, this was a little too much like the pagan triune gods of Egypt, Babylon and Gaul. And if the holy spirit was Jesus’ mother, what would become of Mary? So the church fathers abandoned the pagan “father, mother and son” trinity and invented an original triune God composed of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But this caused further problems, as explained by the Encyclopædia Britannica: “The question as to how to reconcile the encounter with God in this threefold figure with faith in the oneness of God, which was the Jews’ and Christians’ characteristic mark of distinction over against paganism, agitated the piety of ancient Christendom in the deepest way. It also provided the strongest impetus for a speculative theology—an impetus that inspired Western metaphysics [philosophy] throughout the centuries.” Yes, the Trinitarian “unknown God” of Christendom is a product of theological speculation and philosophy.
The Trinity Controversy
In the early centuries of our Common Era there was “an astonishing plurality of views and formulations” regarding the Trinity. Historian J. N. D. Kelly, himself a Trinitarian, admits that the earliest church fathers were all firm monotheists. He writes: “The evidence to be collected from the Apostolic Fathers is meagre, and tantalizingly inconclusive. . . . Of a doctrine of the Trinity in the strict sense there is of course no sign.”—Early Christian Doctrines.
True, such second-century “fathers” as Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons expressed ideas that could be interpreted, at the most, as belief in a two-in-one God made up of the Father and the Son. But Kelly states: “What the Apologists had to say about the Holy Spirit was much more meagre . . . [They] appear to have been extremely vague as to the exact status and role of the Spirit. . . . There can be no doubt that the Apologists’ thought was highly confused; they were very far from having worked the threefold pattern of the Church’s faith into a coherent scheme.”
Those who held that there is only one God, the Father, of whom Jesus is the Son, came to be called Unitarians. We read: “The Trinitarians and the Unitarians continued to confront each other, the latter at the beginning of the 3rd century still forming the large majority.” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition) But as time went by and church fathers became increasingly influenced by a new form of Plato’s philosophy (Neoplatonism), the Trinitarians gained ground. Third-century Neoplatonic philosophy, with its complicated theories of substance or essence, seemingly enabled them to reconcile the irreconcilable—to make a threefold God appear like one God. By philosophical reasoning they claimed that three persons could be one while retaining their individuality!
The Arian Controversy
The Trinity controversy came to a head at the beginning of the fourth century C.E. The main protagonists were three philosopher-theologians from Alexandria, Egypt. On the one side was Arius, with Alexander and Athanasius on the other. Arius denied that the Son was of the same essence, or substance, as the Father. He held the Son to be really a son, who therefore had a beginning. Arius believed the Holy Spirit was a person, but not of the same substance as the Father or the Son and in fact inferior to both. He did speak of a “Triad,” or “Trinity,” but considered it to be composed of unequal persons, of whom only the Father was uncreated.
Alexander and Athanasius, on the other hand, maintained that the three persons of the Godhead were of the same substance and, therefore, were not three Gods but one. Athanasius accused Arius of reintroducing polytheism by separating the three persons.
The head of the Roman Empire at that time was Constantine, who was anxious to use apostate Christianity as “cement” to consolidate his shaky empire. For him, this theological controversy was counterproductive. He called the Trinity quarrel a “fight over trifling and foolish verbal differences.” Having failed to reconcile the two opposing parties by a special letter sent to Alexandria in 324 C.E., Constantine summoned a general church council to settle the matter either way. At this First Ecumenical Council held at Nicaea, Asia Minor, in 325 C.E., the assembled bishops eventually came out in favor of Alexander and Athanasius. They adopted the Trinitarian Nicene Creed, which, with alterations believed to have been made in 381 C.E., is subscribed to up to the present day by the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church and most Protestant churches. Thus it was that Christendom came to worship a mysterious, incomprehensible, three-in-one “unknown God.”
The Trinity controversy did not end at Nicaea. Arianism (which was not true Christianity) made several comebacks over the years. The German tribes that invaded the declining Roman Empire professed Arian “Christianity” and took it into much of Europe and North Africa, where it continued to flourish until well into the sixth century C.E., and even longer in some areas.
The Trinity doctrine divided Christendom for centuries. At various ecumenical councils, theologians philosophized on the precise nature and role of the Son and on whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father alone or from the Father and the Son. All these wranglings merely confused the notion of God in the minds of people.
The Trinity doctrine has, in fact, so confused the minds of many members of Christendom’s churches that their faith in God is shaky, if not completely shaken. But what about you? Do you wonder what the Scriptures really say about the Father, the Son and the holy spirit? These matters will be discussed fully in the next two issues of The Watchtower.
[Blurb on page 24]
“The evidence to be collected from the Apostolic Fathers is meagre, and tantalizingly inconclusive. . . . Of a doctrine of the Trinity in the strict sense there is of course no sign.”—Oxford Professor J. N. D. Kelly
[Box on page 21]
“The Christian Bible, including the New Testament, has no trinitarian statements or speculations concerning a trinitary deity.”—Encyclopædia Britannica
[Box on page 23]
“Perhaps recollection of the many triads of the surrounding polytheistic world contributed to the formation of these threefold formulae.”—Theological Dictionary of the New Testament
[Picture on page 22]
Gaulish, threeheaded god in Reims museum (France)